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WSJ interview with Bruce Ratner: "I am about making sure people have jobs" and "We work just on the merits"

Would you believe that Wall Street Journal interviewer Lee Hawkins, whose beat is The Business of Celebrity, makes local columnists like Denis Hamill and Andrea Peyser, known for fawning treatment of developer Bruce Ratner, look like hard-nosed investigative reporters?

Hawkins, as if reading off a Ratner-provided script, not only hit all the talking points, in some cases he made the point for his interviewer himself. He started off with the inevitable mention that the Barclays Center arena would open 55 years after the Dodgers left.

"55 long, hard, Brooklyn years," responded Ratner, in affirmation, doubling down on the cliche.



Why Brooklyn

"This is a city that at one point had been written off," said Hawkins, unmindful of the 1960s residential revival spurred by historic preservation and immigration.

"I saw so many things in Brooklyn... legacy and history.. so much of America came out of Brooklyn. It had a great legacy, great brand," Ratner said. "It had a great infrastructure.. subway... beautiful, beautiful neighborhoods made out of brick that could not deteriorate... all the bones of a great city...I thought it could be the next downtown business center."

"I always thought of it as a Left Bank of New York," added Ratner, whose earlier structures, such as MetroTech and the Atlantic Center mall, don't exactly have that Left Bank-y feel. (Funny, that's what Marty Markowitz just said in USA Today. Ratner actually said that in 1998 in an article about the Brooklyn Academy of Music's expansion efforts, though the "Left Bank" appellation has far less to do with BAM than with indie culture.)

"In 1985, when we started, I built the first office building in Downtown Brooklyn in over a quarter of a century," he continued. "Crime rate was times the numbers that we have today.. There were bullet holes in the windows of our buildings... big security issues... I would start every presentation--Brooklyn is the greatest Downtown in America."

"What were the characteristics you saw in Brooklyn," asked Hawkins.

"At the end of the day... it's the people... vibrant... new ideas, new blood, young people moving in," Ratner responded. "The difference between Cleveland and Detroit...  at the end of the day, New York City is a special place in this world."

The deal, and Jay-Z

"And the Brooklyn Nets, a big part of your story," Hakwins continued. "You sold the team... partly to get the [arena] deal done."

"The economy crashed," responded Ratner. "We could not get loans. This was done against all odds."

"How did you get Jay-Z involved?"

"Someone had told me... he might be interested... we talked a little... we just got along and it made sense," Ratner replied.

"What drew you to him?" asked Hawkins.

"The person who said he was interested... said he was a very decent man, he was good at business... and obviously had huge celebrity status and that would be very helpful to us," Ratner said. "What I didn't know... would he be a good partner... didn't know how good he was at business... whether it be logo... judgments about what interior looks like. whether it be basketball decisions. He weighs in on a huge amount."

The Nets

"How are you going to win?" asked Hawkins. "Will this be a winning team?"

"[General Manager] Billy's [King] got a very good eye for talent... I have to give a lot of credit to Mr. Prokhorov

"What is your relationship with him?"

"It's one of the best partnerships I've ever had," Ratner responded.

The struggle

"Did you ever think about giving up?" Hawkins asked.

"No," responded Ratner, "but there were times I didn't think it would happen... You can't be a developer of large scale projects and have the word 'give up' in your vocabulary. I did have questions whether it would happen. November, December '08, after the crash, there was no financing available... our company's stock went down.. I thought it might not happen."

"Did you envision this kind of hysteria?" Hawkins asked, essentially dismissing pesky civic concerns about subsidies, eminent domain, and accountability.

"No," Ratner responded. "We built a lot of big projects. Built MetroTech... without the kind of controversy and litigation this had... much more than I anticipated."

The buffing

"You've been portrayed about both a good guy and a bad guy," continued the interviewer, "... concern about gentrification but you've done things that have helped to mitigate that. There's going to be 2000 seats that are 15 dollars.... with your housing, you're actually making an element of it affordable, along with the luxury. Why was that important to you?"

"I come out of an activist background, honestly," Ratner replied. "Both parents were socially involved. I worked for the city and taught for 12 years, where I only did public interest... That's my background, that's who I am.  I am about making sure people have jobs... 2000 jobs are going to be at that arena."

(Um, not 2,000 full-time jobs. Nor even as many as Forest City says.)

"32,000 people applied," Hawkins continued, as if the need in Brooklyn somehow represents Ratnerian generosity.

"It's important from Day 1 that 2000 tickets would be inexpensive," Ratner continued. "I would not build a project with 6000-plus units if there was a significant affordable component... MetroTech was about keeping jobs in New York City... you have to know who you think you are...."

"You sound like a politician," Hawkins asked, in what passed for probing. "Are you going to run for office?"

"No," Ratner responded. "Our company is what I call a civic development company. It really has to have a civic component." (This echoes the discussion Ratner had with Charlie Rose this past March.)

"Conscious capitalism," pronounced Hawkins. "When did it start?"

"In law school, I was involved in the Vietnam War protest movement," responded Ratner, who then described his path away from Big Law but into teaching and city government as Consumer Affairs commissioner. "From Day 1, the first building I built I insisted we have an affirmative action program for contractors and workers... that was unheard of then... every project I've done since then, we set a goal, we have a monitor."

(But not an Independent Compliance Monitor required by the Community Benefits Agreement.)

Building union

"I will only build union," Ratner said. "Unions have made America's middle class. That's not popular."

"Is it becoming more difficult to have that opinion?" Hawkins asked, unmindful of Ratner's plans to significantly cut labor costs by building the Atlantic Yards towers via modular technology.

"It's not hard to have the opinion," Ratner said, though he acknowledged it was harder to implement. "Our business is about jobs, it's about affirmative action. In the case of the arena, tickets that are reasonably priced."

Or it's about corporate profits and luxury suites, as well.

"People say the opposite," Hawkins responded.

"Comes with the territory," Ratner responded, adding that he's gotten a thick skin. "At first it was a little difficult... I have to do what I think is right."

Navigating the landscape

"Having this background in politics and being able to navigate the political landscape has to help you," Hawkins said.

"When you work with government, it's heavily on a staff level," Ratner responded. "It's really more about working on a staff level. On that level, we work in a very unpolitical way. We work just on the merits." (Let's just suggest that statements like "we still need more" subsidy challenge that claim.)

Pre-opening concerns

"You doubled down on Brooklyn," Hawkins said, unmindful of Ratner's record of doubling down by covering his bet with significant governmental help.

"I tripled down on Brooklyn," countered Ratner.

"Your bet was right," Hawkins stated, asking Ratner what he worries about.

"First, I don't have huge anxieties... my anxieties are usually about family, friends, and people  within what I do," Ratner said. "To make sure things are successful.. people attend concerts.. make sure the team wins... I feel like it's there... it's like a Broadway play... it's got all the right pre-play reviews, I still got to open the doors... I want it to go just right. We don't want to have fights in the arena, around the arena, like sometimes these concerts have.... I want everything to go smoothly... I have opening-night anxiety."

I'd say that residents living nearby don't want to have "fights around the arena" either.

Hard-hitting questions

"The investment you have in the Brooklyn Nets and majority owner/developer of the Barclays Center are inextricably tied," Hawkins continued. "Would you say you're pretty well positioned if they win a championship?"

"We have a very good start," Ratner said.

"As a Cleveland guy, what are your feelings about [LeBron James]," Hawkins asked.

Ratner's answer ended with a pledge: "We'll beat him even if he's good."

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